In December, I kept hearing the familiar Irving Berlin tune: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know….” Of course, what we had was a wet Christmas, just like the ones we’ve had for so many years now. This, after the warmest fall on record.
Yes, we did just have a walloping blizzard, with plenty of snow, but the fact remains that winters in general are not what they used to be.
What today’s children think of that song, and of this weather, and of the world in general, is a difficult topic to confront. What we’ve had is a steady, incremental change in climate, due to human activity, that creates a different environment for them from the one we had growing up.
I am not ancient enough to remember ice being harvested on Shank Painter Pond, but I do remember, almost every winter, all winter long, people taking ice boats on Pilgrim Lake (also known as East Harbor), skating at Beech Forest, and cross-country skiing in the dunes. I remember cool bayside breezes reliably ameliorating the summer heat, so that air conditioners were a ridiculous notion.
And that’s not all. In my childhood, there was no pervasive sense of depletion, of impending disaster, of finite resources or limits being reached. Certainly, it turns out, there should have been, but aside from a handful of prescient individuals, the masses lived in post-war prosperity and blissful ignorance of a gathering storm. “Pollution” was not a concept. Wildlife could not be extinguished, it was thought — just moved over to where it would be more convenient for us. Species were not endangered in our minds, even as they slipped away in reality. There were still a few frontiers left. Technology would solve any problems that arose.
To be clear: I am not trying to indict my parents’ generation for their oversight or to depict those years as entirely rosy. In fact, I grew up dwelling on the probability of nuclear annihilation. The Russians were evil. Americans were building bomb shelters and stocking them.
We had drills in school. The Cuban missile crisis occurred when I was a senior in high school. That day, our principal (an idiot) sent us home early and told us to spend time with our families because it could be our last day on Earth. Our teachers were in tears.
And the outrageous irony is that the probability of a nuclear conflagration is still with us and greater than ever, even as it has taken a back seat to threats more dramatically in our sights.
We have just learned to live with it.
The concept of “shifting baselines” refers to the phenomenon in which each successive generation accepts changed conditions as the norm. It means that the prize-winning fish you caught last summer would have been no big deal, or perhaps even thrown back, if your grandparent had reeled it in 50 years ago. The point is not exactly Joni Mitchell’s “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — rather, that you don’t even know what you missed.
My grandchildren are living in a world full of fires and floods, increasingly dangerous storms, melting glaciers, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise. They hear about square miles of the Amazon being cut down every year and the rain forests of Borneo converted to palm plantations. Closer to home, they can no longer go into the woods, even in the colder months, without fearing ticks. Our harbor infrastructure may not be sufficient for the increasingly severe storms. Our beloved and beleaguered right whales are vanishing before our eyes. And we wear masks because of a pandemic that has at least partial roots in the incursions humans have made into previously wild areas.
Greta Thunberg and a legion of young (and not-so-young) activists aside, it seems that governments, corporations, and most individuals simply will not make the necessary sacrifices to stem the approaching disaster. I have to face my grandchildren and try not to be too negative.
I just have to learn to live with it.